Former Pendleton Navy base is set to become an autism center | News

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — Plans are underway to turn the former Navy Information Operations Command base at Sugar Grove in Pendleton County into a residential community and therapeutic training facility for children and young adults with autism.

Legacy by Gersh, which operates 13 boarding schools, camps and training centers in New York, New Hampshire, Washington and Puerto Rico serving people with autism, leased the 123-acre site. It had been vacant since 2015.

“We’re going through the licensing process now,” company founder and CEO Kevin Gersh said in a recent phone interview. “We met with the governor, the economic development office, the education department and other cabinet members and everyone was very cooperative.”

Gersh said Dr. Jeffrey Shrewsbury, former director of the Southern Highlands Community Mental Health Center in Princeton, was hired to administer the Sugar Grove campus. Legacy by Gersh is advertising to hire a pair of maintenance workers and an office manager to begin preparing the site for its first residents, with the hiring of initial medical, therapeutic and educational staff to follow.

“We hope to have the first children on site by September, COVID willing,” Gersh said. “We are thrilled to open the Sugar Grove campus. »

The former US Navy facility was decommissioned on September 30, 2015, and sold for $4 million by the General Services Administration in an online auction in December 2016. Due to its remote location, the base comprised a nearly self-contained residential community with 90 single people – family homes for married personnel and a three-story dormitory-style barracks that housed over 100 single enlisted sailors.

The base also contains a commissary, a community center equipped with a restaurant, a fire department, a bowling alley, a dining hall, a swimming pool, a lighted baseball diamond, office buildings, shops for sports enthusiasts. arts and crafts, tennis courts, and direct fishing access to the South Fork of the South Fork of the Potomac.

Mellivora Capital Partners of Birmingham, Alabama, the base’s auction winner, announced plans to develop a healthcare center for military personnel on the site shortly after the sale was completed. After those plans failed to materialize, Meridian Behavioral Health Systems, the parent company of Highland Hospital in Charleston, announced in March 2018 that it would open a residential substance abuse rehabilitation center at the site in partnership with Highland. and the Gersh organization.

By early 2019, that plan had also been scrapped, but Gersh remained interested in the site.

“I thought creating an autism community there would be the best and biggest use of the facility,” he said.

Gersh parted ways with the Massachusetts recovery center he worked with to fulfill his part of the arrangement with Meridian. He negotiated a lease for the property. He then focused on developing the former military base into a place where young people with autism can learn life skills, go to school and get job training.

Since the base was designed for pedestrian access for those who lived and worked there, “there is no traffic to worry about, giving children the freedom to travel to school, go to the store and go home alone,” Gersh said. “People can come here and learn how to navigate our community, then come home and do the same there.”

In addition to operating a K-12 boarding school for people with autism, Gersh said, the Sugar Grove campus will offer personalized therapeutic programs, provide post-high school job training, and give all students the opportunity to develop independent life skills.

“We’ll have our own bakery, raise our own eggs and therefore some farming,” and offer therapy programs that incorporate horses and dogs, Gersh said. “Families can come and visit and stay…We’re building something the world has never seen.”

When fully operational in about five years, the Sugar Grove campus will be able to accommodate about 400 students and maintain a staff of about 300, according to Gersh. “It’s a big business,” he said, “but nothing great comes easy.”

While Gersh said he hoped an initial batch of students would begin classes this fall at the former Navy base, he acknowledged that it would be wise not to etch that opening date into the memory. rock.

“But sometimes you put a plan in place and COVID laughs,” he said.

The Legacy by Gersh’s Sugar Grove campus utilizes the support base once used to house Navy personnel, dependents, administrative facilities, and base amenities. A nearby operations area equipped with numerous satellite dishes and a 60,000 square foot underground facility was not included in the 2016 auction.

The Navy’s presence at the Sugar Grove site began in the late 1950s, when it was selected by the Naval Research Laboratory as the site for a 600-foot-diameter radio telescope intended to intercept Russian radio and radar signals. reflected by the moon. The site’s remote location and its presence in the national radio silence zone were key factors in the decision to build the giant telescope there.

Construction of the telescope was halted in 1962, about two years after work began, due to design issues. The project was abandoned. In 1969, the site became Naval Radio Station Sugar Grove, handling high-frequency communications traffic from ships, aircraft, and overseas Navy installations.

In 1992, the base became a site of Naval Security Group activity, which was involved in communications research, according to the Navy at the time. But in 2013, the Chief of Naval Operations ordered the base closed by the end of September 2015 based on a “determination by the resource sponsor, the National Security Agency,” to shift the mission from the based.

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